Out of the box, the Elite looks like a superficial upgrade. Aside from the 3.5mm headphone jack up front and the new slider control underneath and equidistant from the Menu and Options buttons, you'd be forgiven for confusing the Elite pad with the standard one. It's when you start futzing around with the different thumbstick options or snapping metal levers into the underside that the gamepad starts looking unique.
The Elite comes with a clamshell case that has a molded space for the controller, a cargo pouch for spare earbuds, batteries and the pack-in, braided micro-USB cable (a requirement for most tournaments) that will tether the pad to a console. There's also a molded rubber holder that keeps the four control levers, two sets of thumbsticks and spare directional pad in place. The idea behind the latter is that it'll keep your extra parts secure during travel so they don't fall out after unzipping the case. In practice, everything stayed in place for me aside from the faceted directional pad -- its section is too loose to keep that from bouncing around. On the flip side, the cross-style option fit incredibly snugly.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the controller to pair it with my console was how heavy it was compared to the standard gamepad. Microsoft says that with all four levers attached, a pair of included Duracell AAs and standard thumbsticks, the Elite weighs 348 grams, give or take 15. That's 12.3 ounces compared to its predecessor's 9.9 ounces. Honestly, though, the only time I noticed was when I picked it up since more often than not, when I'm gaming, my hands rest in my lap.
That heft likely comes from the Elite's revamped innards. The thumbsticks feel incredibly springy and precise, thanks to their metal construction. I've never been a fan of the sticks on the Xbox One pad. They've always felt rough and just weren't comfortable to me. With the Elite, I had the option of choosing among three different sets (standard, tall and a pair of convex heads) and changing them on the fly, but most of the time I was perfectly happy with the standard set. All are incredibly comfortable, though, and have the same premium feel as the rest of the controller.
Depending on the game, I opted for different configurations. For Halo 5: Guardians, I stuck a standard stick on the left and one of the twice-as-tall options on the right. With Forza Motorsport 6, I reversed that. Why? With shooters, the extra height gave me more leverage and ensured I wouldn't hit a face button by accident while aiming my assault rifle at my quarry. In a racing game, the added height made steering a lot easier.
Not only have the thumbsticks gotten an overhaul, but also the pots they sit in did too. Microsoft added a low-friction ring to where the stick makes contact with the faceplate and the result is pretty dramatic. Movement just feels smoother because the metal shafts glide effortlessly around when you're pushing them toward the edges. It makes using the controller a bit quieter, too.
The sync button's now sharing a lime green hue with the d-pad socket, hair-trigger locks and contact points for the control levers. What are those? Metal pieces between an inch and an inch and a half long that act as secondary inputs for any button on the controller. There are four total (two angled, two straight) and you can arrange them in a number of different ways, some correct and others less so. It's possible, for example, to arrange them in a way where they'll overlap. Like the rest of the custom options, these hold in place magnetically and if you'd rather not use them, that's entirely up to you.
One of my biggest complaints about the standard controller is how stiff the right and left shoulder buttons are. They have an incredibly narrow sweet spot to register a depression and using them has always felt really hit or miss to me, with the innermost edge being damn near impossible to press in. With the Elite, that gripe's been eliminated. Here, they're a little easier to press at their outermost edges, but even at the opposite end (where the actuators reside) it takes dramatically less effort and is more even all the way across. Both the shoulder buttons and the triggers below feature a matte silver finish versus the standard's slippery black gloss, and the latter's throw is about 3/16 of an inch shorter. And rather than the standard triggers' squishy feel, these make a firm click when you bottom out.
The battery tray is in the same place as before, but now it has markers indicating what position the hair-trigger locks are in. Immediately on either side are the recessed metal knobs that take the analog triggers and dramatically reduce the distance you need to pull before your on-screen gun fires.
I couldn't find a use for the faceted d-pad during my review, but supposedly it's better for pulling combos in fighting games. As a button masher (rest assured I'm not quitting my day job for eSports) it felt like the magnet was barely able to hold the concave piece of metal in place. Sure, it looks cool, but once I installed the metallic cross d-pad, I never took it out. The A, B, X and Y buttons changed from green, red, blue and yellow, respectively, to all black. And the aforementioned standard headphone jack rests off to the side of where the previously required headset adapter did on the standard controller, while a legacy connection for purpose-built headsets like the Astro A40 Xbox One Edition sits next to it. It's a smart move because it doesn't alienate anyone who bought a specific headset previously.
To me, the standard controller has always felt like a prototype rather than a final product -- with its rough edges and other questionable design choices. That isn't the case here. The Elite features a soft rubber finish on a majority of its surface, with a more aggressive diamond-pattern grip where your palms rest underneath. The DualShock 4 has a textured underside too, but it can't hold a candle to this. For example, sliding the Elite across the glass desk in my home office proved pretty difficult. I might as well have been dragging a pencil eraser across it. Even after a four-hour Halo 5 session, the controller didn't feel like it'd slip out of my moist palms.
The customization options don't stop with the hardware -- there's an app that gives you the chance to completely rebind every button's function (aside from Menu and Options) to a different one. Want the digital shoulder buttons to perform the trigger duties? I can't recommend that, but go right ahead. How about adjusting the A, B, X and Y buttons so they mimic Nintendo's non-standard layout? Have at it. Effectively, this gives you complete control of how your gamepad works, without being subject to the tyranny of pre-defined control schemes on a game-by-game basis.